The Shaving of Shagpat (1856)/The Case of Rumdrum

The Shaving of Shagpat  (1856)  by George Meredith
The Case of Rumdrum, a Reader of Planets, That Was A Barber

This chapter was omitted in some later editions.
Previous and next chapters in 1909 edition:The Talking HawkGoorelka of Oolb


It is told of Rumdrum, O King, that he was a barber, and a reader of planets: by day he operated on the heads of men, and at night interpreted the stars. Now Rumdrum talked and had enemies, and they were active with the King of the city where Rumdrum dwelt. The King was at war with the armies of a neighbouring nation, and the enemies of Rumdrum declared to the King that Rumdrum had an understanding with the Chiefs of those armies. So the displeasure of the King fell upon Rumdrum, and he walked with the eye of abasement, even under a cloud full of direful bolts, as is said of them that arouse the wrath of kings; and the coolness of the barber forsook him, the firmness of glance, the steadiness of hand. He was in this condition when one day the King sent for him to the palace, to exert his craft. So Rumdrum went, armed with his tackle. At the palace-gates he was greeted by the cook of the palace, the head-cook, that was his friend; and the head-cook warned Rumdrum of the doings of his enemies. And Rumdrum said, "I have seen all this by my science and my foresight, but there is that upon the head of the King which cleareth a mystery, one concerning himself, and for his sake I will go."

So Rumdrum went and kissed the ground of obedience before the King, and arranged his tackle, and commenced shaving the King, for this time was before the time of Shagpat, when kings were shaved, and men; wullahy! it was a time not without its glory, and there was one art the more exercised!

Now while Rumdrum shaved the King, the King questioned him as to future occurrences, and he said, "How is it, O Rumdrum; will mine enemies succeed in what they undertake?"

And Rumdrum gave the King an answer pleasant in expression, but unsavoury to swallow.

Now the King thought, "This fellow is beguiling me with double meanings, and the sweet concealeth the sour in what he says." So while the blade of Rumdrum swept over him like a gleam across the water, he made a signal to his guard for the guard to close upon Rumdrum. As they closed upon him Rumdrum shrieked, and struggled to get back to the King, and offered the guard bribes of money, rare gifts, to let him peer once more upon the head of the King; and the King was confirmed in his suspicions of Rumdrum. So he had the bow slung about the neck of Rumdrum, and accused him of the crime of a traitor. And Rumdrum said, "O King, there is nought like confidence in thy kind; and he that dishonoureth the barber is in turn dishonoured, seeing that it is a craft made familiar with the noblest part of man, and a craft intimate with occurrences, charged with foretellings. Now, that I may prove my words, grant me one day and one night further of life, and on the morrow let me die."

So the King granted him a day and a night to live, and on the morrow Rumdrum handed a sealed paper to the King, and died by the tightening of the bow round his neck. Then the King opened the packet, and in it was traced the figure of a barber crowned and in the robes of a King on his throne; under it were written the words, "Let him that marketh this figure of the barber, acknowledge his repentance!" And the King, when he had seen that, said, "There was wisdom in Rumdrum, and by killing him I have made him potent to shame me and insult me, he that was in life my slave, so of a surety I repent."

The King turned to a second leaf of the packet, and there was traced a figure of the King, the barber, and the Angel of Death; and the barber was shielding the head of the King from the stroke of Azrael; under it were the words, "Let him that marketh the figure of the King, the barber, and the Angel of Death, acknowledge the faithfulness of Rumdrum." And the King, when he had seen that, said, "There was faithfulness in Rumdrum, for his opportunities were many of delivering me over to the Angel of Death, yet he shielded me."

The King turned to a third leaf of the packet, and there was traced a tomb beside a cypress; under it were the words, "Let him that marketh this tomb beside the cypress come to it by night, and acknowledge the privilege of the dead." So the King went by night to the tomb of the barber, and stood beside the tomb; and a voice as from the hollow of the tomb called to him for the reason of his coming. The King said, "I come hither to learn the privilege of the dead."

And the Voice answered, "It is the privilege of the dead to speak truth when they speak, without fear of kings."

The King said, "Tell me then, am I well served, secure from traitors, beloved by my wives, my courtiers, and my people?"

And the Voice answered, "It is the privilege of the dead to be silent when they please, without fear of kings."

The King reflected, and his heart smote him for his conduct to the barber. He said, "If thou be Rumdrum enclosed in this tomb, listen to my praises of him and my sorrow for his loss; he that was wise, faithful, a reader of planets; whose tongue went much, but whose heart beat true; who has filled with remorse and regret the King's breast, his eyes with tears, his thoughts with bitterness."

And the Voice answered, "It is the privilege of the dead to scorn flatteries, even from the mouths of kings."

Then the King cried aloud, "Oh, how great is the privilege of the dead! There is no privilege like to that they possess! Strong are they! He that punisheth the innocent is but an instrument to exalt them, scourged for his pains."

Now while the King was lost in self-abasement, the Voice said, "Know, great King, that the restlessness of an uncompleted work is on the tomb of Rumdrum the barber, and if thou wouldst appease him, call hither one to shave thee, and lay upon his tomb the hairs of thy head."

So the King did this, and was shaved and laid the hairs upon the tomb. Then the Voice said, "O King, the calculations of Rumdrum were cut short, and in the tomb he cannot take them up, for no science availeth in the tomb, as is written:

"'The thoughts of heads,
The works of hands,
Are sever'd threads
And broken bands.'

Now he calculated thy nativity, and was summing the number of thy hairs when he was torn from thee, and the thing he would have foretold is dumb; so if thou wouldst know it, set thyself to count the number of thy hairs upon this tomb diligently, counting two for the hair of fortune, which is the Identical. And cease not to count, for when thou holdest off from counting it is the end of thy days."

So the King saw what he had lost in Rumdrum the barber, for he knew not the Identical, which is the hair of fortune, to count two for it; and his days were given to the counting these hairs upon the tomb, he fearing to hold off from counting lest death should surprise him. Wah! it is an ill thing to do an injustice, which springeth from suspicion, as the poet says:

"Suspicion in the birth fail not to strangle,
Lest that its offspring thy soul's beauty mangle."

So the King saw what he had lost in Rumdrum the barber.